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Big Bird and friends small

Iconic US children’s TV show ‘Sesame Street’ recently turned 50. DAVID ADAMS takes a look at how it all began…

It’s been described as the most important children’s show in TV, but how did it all start for Sesame Street and its iconic cast of characters including Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch?

The show – which debuted on US TV on 10th November, 1969 – apparently traces its origins to discussions between TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, vice president of the Carnegie Corporation, on the subject of how TV could be used to prepare young children for school.

Big Bird and friends

Big Bird and friends – including Caroll Spinney who retired recently from being the voice of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, a job he’d held since 1969 – celebrating the 50th anniversary in advance of a commemorative green and yellow illumination of the Empire State Building in New York City on 10th November.

Morrisett commissioned Cooney to do some research in the subject and she produced a report which outlined how TV could be used to do just that. Her research led to the establishment of the Children’s Television Workshop (now known as the non-profit Sesame Workshop) which was tasked with creating a new show. Cooney wisely suggested that as well as appealing to children, it also be made to appeal to adults to ensure a wider engagement. 

A team spent 18 months working on the show – unprecedented in children’s television at the time – and, following testing (which showed people wanted the human characters on the show to interact with muppets created by Jim Henson), it hit the small screen.

The show’s profile received a significant boost in 1970 when, to mark its first anniversary, the eight foot tall bright yellow canary known as Big Bird (who was the first non-human to appear on the show), was splashed on the cover of TIME. Since then there’s been a big screen movie – 1985’s Follow That Bird (a second cinema release is reportedly slated for 2021) – and a Hollywood Walk of Fame star.

The show has won some 11 Grammys and more than 150 Emmys in its history – more than any other children’s show.

Having just kicked off its 50th season – that’s more than 4,935 episodes, Sesame Street has had its share of controversy over the years including the uncertainty of Bert and Ernie’s relationship, the backlash to the introduction of the child-like Elmo, and, more recently, the deal Sesame Workshop signed with HBO where episodes are now seen before they air on PBS.

But Sesame Street has also been at the forefront of confronting important social issues – including the introduction of Julia, a muppet with autism in 2017Lily, a homeless muppet, in 2018, and Karli, a muppet who lives in a fostercare situation.

And despite the plethora of content available for children today, Sesame Street seems to be holding its ground. But, as experts are quick to point out, with its YouTube channel and webpage attracting millions of visitors these days, it’s now far more than just a TV show.

“The reality is that Sesame Street’s impact can no longer be measured as ‘Who is sitting in front of the TV watching?” media scholar Myles McNutt, an assistant professor in the communication and theatre arts department at Old Dominion University, told The Guardian recently. “If you think of Sesame Street as a television show, that’s long been inaccurate. It’s a cultural product.”



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